Thursday, November 30, 2006

Kosovo: Calm now, but nervously approaching final status

30 November 2006 Source: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Peter Lippman

Seven years have passed since the 1998-99 war in Kosovo and NATO’s intervention, which forced the withdrawal of Serbian troops. Today, the atmosphere on the streets of Kosovo towns is noticeably less tense than it was a few years ago, when in the spring of 2004, widespread anti-Serb riots caused great damage.

Since then, however, the anger of the post-war period has been replaced by other, milder feelings. During a recent visit to Kosovo, I learned from friends that they enjoy greater freedom of movement within the protectorate than before. A growing confidence in the future of Kosovo as an independent country is accompanied by impatience with the U.N. administration and the slow pace of change. Kosovo’s capital, Priština, is bursting at the seams with new construction.

The Hotel Victory, near the bus station on the outskirts of town, sports a replica of the Statue of Liberty at least 20 feet high. A main road leading into the city is named “Bil Clinton Road.” Hundreds of new shops, NGOs and businesses with bright storefronts liven up the visage of the formerly rather shabby city. In Prizren, meanwhile, Kosovo’s most attractive city and one which escaped great damage during the war, a fifth annual documentary film festival was held in early August, lending a worldly atmosphere to the town. While citizens of Kosovo struggle to rebuild their province, or simply make ends meet, since the beginning of the year officials from Priština, Serbia and the international community have been holding negotiations in Vienna on Kosovo’s “final status.”

On the surface, this phrase refers to the question of independence for the former “autonomous province” of Serbia. Despite the fact that Kosovo has been independent of Serbia since the NATO intervention, this status remains to be legalized. The international community, in the form of a “Contact Group” of six nations, is putting strong pressure on Belgrade to relinquish its former province. Since 1999, when Serbia accepted NATO conditions, no Albanian has expressed willingness to settle for anything less than complete separation from Serbia.

Given these factors, it is widely recognized that the future of Kosovo is independence. Although Serbian politicians are not blind to this eventuality, none of them has stepped forward to accept it publicly. In an early 2006 statement, the Contact Group emphasized that “there should be: no return of Kosovo to the pre-1999 situation, no partition of Kosovo, and no union of Kosovo with any or part of another country.” The international position on independence could not be much clearer than this. Stated Lutfi Hazire, head of the Albanian delegation to the negotiations, “The start of this dialogue is a preparation for Kosovo’s road to independence.”

During a round of negotiations in May, however, Serbian representatives offered Kosovo “extensive autonomy,” but simultaneously demanded continuation of Serbia’s sovereignty over the province. Behind the contentious issue of sovereignty for Kosovo lies the very concrete problem of minorities. Albanians now comprise some 90 percent of Kosovo’s population, at whose hands Serbs and Roma, particularly, have at times suffered serious mistreatment.

While this problem has been under greater control in the past few years, the international community is not about to hand over power to an Albanian-dominated government without very solid guarantees for the safety of minorities. U.N. envoy and mediator Martti Ahtisaari was expected to present a final proposal regarding status and minority issues in a September round of negotiations. This has turned out to be overly optimistic, but commentators in Kosovo are now saying that Ahtisaari’s proposal should be accepted by the beginning of next year. If negotiations remain deadlocked, a decision for independence will most likely be taken by the U.N. Security Council. Any resolution will have to include strong guarantees for minority rights not only from an Albanian-dominated government, but also from some manner of continued international supervision during a phased transition to independence and stability.

Albanians I’ve spoken with in Kosovo say it would be in the best interests of Serbs in the province to throw in their lot with a independent country, rather than continually looking to a meddlesome, politically crafty Serbian government for guidance. They say that Albanian mistrust of Kosovo Serbs, based on the memory of atrocities committed during the war, should subside with independence, because Kosovo Serbs then would not be regarded as a threat.

Albanian Opposition
Entering Priština or Prizren, however, one is struck by the prevalence of anti-negotiations messages spraypainted on city walls. “No Negotiations!” the graffiti shout, and, cleverly, “12:44: Time’s Up—UNMIK Go Home” (1244 refers to the U.N. Security Council Resolution that, upon the expulsion of Serb forces, established Kosovo as a U.N. protectorate.) These graffiti are courtesy of the Priština-based grassroots organization Vetevendosje (“Self-determination”), led by Albin Kurti. Kurti is a young activist with a history of brave leadership of the anti-Milosevic student movement in the late 1990s. During the NATO intervention he was arrested by the Serbs, and spent over two years in jail. Vetevendosje’s deep mistrust of UNMIK (U.N. Mission in Kosovo), the protectorate administration, reflects the common frustration that promised changes over the last seven years have taken place very slowly.

Vetevendosje’s objection to the negotiations stems from the concern that the Contact Group will allow passage of a resolution compromising Kosovo’s independence—specifically, agreeing to Belgrade’s demands that Kosovo Serbs, who comprise a majority in five Kosovo municipalities, be given control of around 10 more. Kurti fears that this group of municipalities could constitute a territorially autonomous unit that would annex itself, in some fashion, to Serbia. While he does not oppose Kosovo’s eventual political decentralization, he insists that such an arrangement must take place after independence, and without the participation of the Serbian government.

Everyday problems
Criticisms of extremism leveled at Vetevendosje are common in Kosovo, where many wish that Kurti would concentrate on more concrete issues such as local corruption and unemployment. Putting aside the drives for independence, sovereignty and protection of minorities, there are serious problems that more immediately afflict the lives of Kosovars—Albanians and minorities alike. Electrical shortages are endemic in the protectorate, where over two-thirds of the labor force is out of work. Poverty is pushing 40 percent, and “extreme poverty” has risen to 15 percent. Only 5 percent of domestically consumed goods are produced locally. “I don’t care about independence,” one Albanian told me. “The problem here is that we are exporting money.”

The imbalance in foreign trade has been faulted for hurting local agriculture, causing hundreds of thousands of villagers to flock to the cities—where they still don’t have work. This scenario provides more-than-usual support to one of Vetevendosje’s campaigns, a boycott of Serbian imports which are flooding the stores. Even much of the construction material for rebuilding post-war Kosovo comes from Serbia. More dispassionate, business-oriented people note that the bulk of the post-war construction already has taken place—making the boycott campaign somewhat belated. Moreover, they point out, such a campaign could face opposition from local (Albanian) businessmen, who are developing thriving business relationships with Serbs. In the end, the economic and political problems are connected. Without the stability afforded by final status, international lending institutions will not guarantee loans for Kosovo, and foreign investors will steer clear.

The hope is that the international community can push through a resolution in Vienna in the quickest way possible, with guarantees for safety for all people in Kosovo, leading to a time of calm, cooperation, and development. Unfortunately, the possibilities for disruption from various forces are great, both during and after any resolution of negotiations. Peter Lippman is an independent human rights activist based in Seattle.
Peter Lippman is an independent human rights activist based in Seattle.
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